20100707

Brilliance unsurpassed

Holland are in the World Cup final. Inevitably, the chatter among the sports columnists is of laying the ghosts of 1974 and 1978, when the best team in the world evolved around the sublime talents of Johan Cruyff yet lost both of the two World Cup finals they reached.

The current Dutch side is not a patch on that one, for all the tendency to believe that Wesley Sneijder is possessed of mystical powers.  Football is a more prosaic game these days, even in those countries with a history of magnificent individualism.

There is no harm in looking at the present through nostalgic eyes, however.  And this, therefore, is the perfect moment to revisit David Winner’s classic analysis, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, a work inspired by the conceptual genius of Total Football but which goes well beyond the game in its scope, setting football in the context of Dutch society and explaining how the country’s history and the character traits of its people so much influenced the way Dutch teams play.

Winner cast light, too, on why Dutch teams have so often been found wanting at critical moments, a habit that has attracted comparisons with England, although our disappointments can have been nothing compared with the wailing that must have been heard in Amsterdam and Eindhoven, Maastricht and Middelburg at the failings of a genuine golden generation.

Originally published in 2000, Brilliant Orange stands the test of time for its sheer originality among football texts.  Beautifully written, wonderfully evocative and expansively thought-provoking: very Dutch, in fact, although the author is a Londoner who lives in Rome.

Sunday’s final may be another missed opportunity.  On the other hand, it may lead to some of the most joyous, uplifting football to have illuminated World Cup history to be celebrated afresh.  Yet just as Sneijder’s team will never match Cruyff’s, nor even the Gullit-Van Basten side of the 1990s, so Brilliant Orange is unlikely to be bettered, either.

For more on football and more by David Winner, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.

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